The Saqqara plateau served as a burial site to the ancient Egyptians for over three thousand years. It is home to pyramids, private tombs and temples, and is even the burial place of sacred animals. The most famous of the animals buried at Saqqara were the Apis bulls. For over a thousand years these bulls were laid to rest in the darkness of the Serapeum, a massive gallery of tunnels and niches carved into the rock below Saqqara.
The story of the discovery of the Serapeum is as exciting as any Hollywood movie. The Greek writer Strabo, who lived in the First Century BC, described a road of lonely windswept sphinxes, some half submerged in the sand, stretching out across Saqqara to a temple of the god Serapis. Nearly two thousand years later a young man named Auguste Mariette was sent to Egypt by the Louvre to buy manuscripts for the museum’s collection. On a visit to Saqqara he noticed a sphinx emerging from the sand. Suddenly the words of Strabo entered his mind and he realised that if he followed the row of sphinxes he would find the long lost Serapeum. At that moment he decided to ignore his instructions from the French Government and, quietly, and almost secretly, begin his excavations. As work continued he discovered Greek statues marking the path. Then, after having informed the French government of his discovery, he asked for the funds to continue his important work.
His request was successful and for four years his team continued to excavate, uncovering more of the secrets of the Serapeum as they worked. The row of sphinxes led to the remains of two pylons. In turn, these had originally led to a temple, of which virtually nothing now remained. However, they found that one of the chambers in the temple led to a vast subterranean vault. Here Mariette knew that he would find the sacred tombs of the Apis bulls.
From the ancient evidence we know that there was only ever one Apis bull at a time and that each bull was associated with the king when alive and with the god Osiris after death. In the Ptolemaic Period the cult of the Apis was combined with that of a variety of Greek gods; it was then known as the cult of Serapis. The mothers of the Apis bulls were also viewed as gods; these were associated with Isis and buried in North Saqqara.
The bulls were buried at the Serapeum for over one thousand years, from the Eighteenth Dynasty to the Ptolemaic Period, amid great mourning and ceremony. During this long period of time there were three major stages of architectural development.
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